"The Brief History of the Dead." By Kevin Brockmeier. Pantheon Books. 252 Pages. $22.95.
At its best, the printed word provokes thought. It makes a human being stop and contemplate the fabric of existence through the wisdom of carefully chosen clauses and sentences and ideas. But the sad fact is that, in an age where the image trumps all, such text-and-paper epiphanies are increasingly rare.
When they do appear, they often are clothed in such ethereal subtlety that the depth of their wisdom is not immediately evident. You must dig, burrow, push forward to find the secrets that matter.
This is not the case with "The Brief History of the Dead," Kevin Brockmeier's new novel.
From its first chapter, it reveals itself as a unique beast, a book that will echo long after the final page is read and its covers closed. It is a parable, an allegory, a piece of modern mythology that deserves a rightful place among such explorations of the human soul as Paolo Coelho's "The Alchemist" and Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones."
At the novel's outset - the first chapter was powerful enough to stand on its own as a short story in The New Yorker in 2002 - we are in a city in the not-too-distant future. This is not just any earthly town; it is a necropolis, a city of the dead. The word is usually used to describe large cemeteries, but this necropolis is bustlingly, emotionally alive - filled with the recently deceased.
They do not take the form of spirits or of noncorporeal souls; indeed, they seem very normal and human save for the small fact that they happen to be dead - and know it. They rekindle old relationships, establish new ones, wonder about their loved ones still on Earth. Though they never pierce the boundary of the sprawling city, which has no name, they manage to have restaurants filled with food, community newspapers and apartments with indoor plumbing.
There is one catch: People take their leave of The City abruptly, vanishing without a trace after 50, 60, 70 years and leaving their possessions and homes behind for new arrivals to populate. There is something deeply sad about this - sadder, even, than death itself. This is purgatory, a limbo that mirrors and mimics earthly life and is just as temporary, just as unyielding about the secrets of eternity that lie beyond it.
One day, The City begins to change rapidly. It emerges that there is an epidemic on Earth that is killing people by the millions. Because The City is populated only by those dead who are remembered by someone in our world, this causes chaos. As legions die on Earth and appear in The City, so, too, do The City's longtime residents disappear en route to whatever fate awaits them.
Many try to figure this out. As in life, some adopt religion, some try to reason it out, some start down the road toward insanity. The City begins to fold in on itself.
At the same time, on Earth, Brockmeier's literary camera zooms in on Laura Byrd, a scientist who works for Coca-Cola and is stranded on an expedition to Antarctica. When her two companions set out to find a larger station, they learn about the pandemic that is ravaging the planet. Laura is left in the vast whiteness and blankness, alone with her thoughts and her memories.
As the chapters alternate between The City and Laura's mind, it begins to crystallize that memory - her memory in particular - is pivotal to sustaining the necropolis and its people. She must not stop remembering, though of course she is unaware of this as she tries to figure out what a future of survival and utter solitude might mean.
Brockmeier's prose is sometimes spare, sometimes flowing. He modulates it just right, and despite the physical implausibilities of the city of the dead, there is rarely a moment where it does not seem utterly believable.
To conceive of a place where our loved ones live, literally, in memory and can interact with each other and form new lives, albeit temporary ones, is both romantic and excruciatingly melancholy. He has created a mirror world, one in which eternity seems within our grasp but oblivion also remains just around the corner. Sound familiar?
Here is a truism: Each generation produces literature that reflects its own needs and wants and anxieties. In "The Brief History of the Dead," Brockmeier has posited a snapshot of our end, and in it he finds potential beginnings that are just as sad and pregnant with possibility as our own existence. He has created a world of death that is just like life itself, with all the uncertainties and joy, only more so.
That's a definition of eternity for our age if there ever was one.